Chakan: Stull the man at quarterback for 2009

By Zack Chakan

Pitt quarterback Bill Stull entered the Sun Bowl prepared for the most important game of his… Pitt quarterback Bill Stull entered the Sun Bowl prepared for the most important game of his life and left El Paso after a performance he would love to forget. Unfortunately, it was the kind of effort that Pitt fans will remember until the opening kickoff against Youngstown State on Sept. 5. That’s seven painful months of nightmares. Stull and the Panthers were favored to take down Oregon State on Dec. 31, and ride a victory to a preseason top-15 national ranking. The carnage caused by that game makes it difficult to rank Pitt in the top 15 of the state. Stull’s ugly stat line from the 3-0 defeat: 7-of-24 passing, with 52 yards and an interception. He was harassed all game by the Beavers’ defensive front, which tore through the decimated Panther offensive line like it was caution tape. When the dust settled after that windy Texas day, star running back LeSean McCoy saddled up the first horse he could find and galloped straight to the NFL Draft. President George W. Bush is more popular right now than Stull. In other words, the early peek into Pitt’s 2009 season looks just as rosy as Rod Blagojevich’s resume. Enraged fans are already predicting a losing season, it seems. True, with McCoy on board, the Panthers would have been a trendy pick for a 10- or 11-win season next year. On the surface, Pitt’s chances at a Big East title next year appear as doomed as one of Stull’s Sun Bowl screen passes. But with President Barack Obama entering the White House this week, what better time to preach a mantra of hope that Pitt’s outlook will improve? Yes Pitt can? Here’s a little hunch, it will. Pitt remains just as big a threat to capture Big East royalty next season. The title is up for grabs already, with West Virginia, Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida featuring major holes. And Pitt’s defense returns nearly intact after a dominating year. Ironically enough, the threat starts with Stull. And make no mistake about it, Pitt’s quarterback play will be much improved in 2009. No, Stull isn’t going to magically turn into Brett Favre (actually, pray that he doesn’t, let’s say Peyton Manning), but the upcoming senior isn’t a bad quarterback. Stull completed 57 percent of his passes in his first year as a starter and passed for 2,356 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Those numbers don’t exactly force one’s jaw agape, but Matt Cavanaugh’s offense totally revolved around McCoy. Without McCoy, the passing game has to be ushered to the light. Pitt could have the best receiving group in the Big East, with Jonathan Baldwin ready to break out after a compelling freshman campaign. Only Derek Kinder graduates, with T.J. Porter, Cedric McGee and Oderick Turner all threats to opponents’ secondaries. The ball needs to be in their hands as much as possible, particularly in Baldwin’s. He averaged 22.4 yards per reception while only running screen routes or fly patterns. When he learns the nuances of being a real receiver ‘- look out. Despite McCoy and LaRod Stephens-Howling heading for greener pastures, Pitt’s running game isn’t stuck on death row either. Shariff Harris possesses the talent to nearly duplicate McCoy’s impressive statistics. Harris received a taste of college football as a freshman, gaining 21 yards on 12 carries, but those numbers don’t indicate his true toughness as a runner. Kevin Collier is in the mix as well, but the real wild card is redshirt freshman Chris Burns. The kid can make Darren Sproles look like LenDale White. But once again, the difference between an 8- and a 10-win season depends on the quarterback. No matter who it is, the production will increase from last year. Stull is one of the hardest workers on the team, and no one is more upset with the Sun Bowl’s outcome than he is. He put a lot of blame on himself for the loss, and he’ll come back in 2009 ready to be the best passer possible to put that game behind him. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt opened up the quarterback spot for competition, but Stull is the favorite. The incumbent knows he has to improve for the Panthers to succeed. The only way Wannstedt veers away from Stull is if and only if a challenger makes a monumental improvement. Whether that player is junior Pat Bostick or freshman Tino Sunseri, Pitt will benefit from the competition. Sunseri looks like a future star at this stage, but next year will be a learning effort. And Bostick has a lot of work to do to live up to his pre-Pitt potential. There’s no way Wannstedt and Cavanaugh enter 2009 with chaos at quarterback. They will do everything in their power to prepare the trio for the tribulations of leading a good college program. After the Sun Bowl disaster, the coaches need to devise a new game plan of their own to put their quarterback in the best position to succeed. In the end, Stull will be that guy. He has the chance and the ability to prove the Internet gurus and naysayers wrong. Yes he can!